City professor remembers Dadabhai Naoroji (1821 – 1917), the ‘grand old man of India’ who became the first Asian member of parliament and blazed a trail that led to Indian independence.

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As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continues to inspire change and uncover historical figures who are equally deserving of celebration, Professor Inderjeet Parmar highlights the life of Dadabhai Naoroji, a man who championed for education for all.

In 1892, Indian businessman and scholar, Dadabhai Naoroji’s became the first Asian member of parliament in the British House of Commons. One of the only monuments commemorating his legacy can be found a stone throw away from City, University of London, on the exterior wall of Finsbury Town Hall. A Clerkenwell sideroad is also fittingly named ‘Naoroji Street’ in his honour.

Yet this is insufficient for a man who was so significant to British and Indian history, says Professor Parmar.

Plaque honouring Dadabhai Naoroji found on Finsbury Town Hall.
Plaque honouring Dadabhai Naoroji found on Finsbury Town Hall.

Upon his arrival in Britain in 1855, Naoroji challenged the ruling class to show that the poverty of India was the direct result of colonial rule, especially the taxation that went to finance the Indian government and military.

With no British-Indian voters to rely on, Naoroji fostered and built political alliances with women suffragists, and working-class voters who were demanding action on their economic and social rights.

Between 1892 and 1985, Naoroji served in the UK House of Parliament as the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central, which covered the area of Clerkenwell, where City is based.

Naoroji blazed a trail that led to Indian independence

Settling in Britain to establish the first Indian business in 1855, Naoroji felt moved to challenge the way colonial rule drained the wealth of India.

Introducing his ‘drain theory,’ Naoroji condemned the way British rule drained economic wealth from India – keeping the country poor.

In the House of Commons, at the heart of empire, Naoroji campaigned for free education and the and the extension of the Factory Acts – a law aimed at improving working conditions, health and safety, wages, the rights of women, and child workers.

Throughout his career, Naoroji’s writings continued to support the theory that British rule was detrimental to India. His work was later cited by City alumni, Mahatma Gandhi in the fight for Indian independence.

Dadabhai Naoroji, the 'grand old man of India'
Dadabhai Naoroji, the 'grand old man of India'

“Naoroji’s is a remarkable story and one that is largely forgotten,” says Professor Parmar.

“There is so much to be learned about British society and politics, India, the empire, and the rise of the voices and movements of the colonised. In short, Naoroji’s is a story of the making of the modern world with all its twists and turns, and ambiguities.

“Naoroji taught Gujarati literature at University College London (UCL), and represented the working-class constituency in which City, University of London, is located.

“Much like Naoroji’s work, the original mission of the institute that developed over a century into City was ‘the promotion of the industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young men and women belonging to the poorer classes’. The University’s motto is ‘to serve mankind.’

“Naoroji ventured into the imperial lion’s den, brought the struggle for justice and dignity to the very core of the Raj.”

Professor Inderjeet Parmar, writes on Dadabhai Naoroji for The Wire.